Monday, October 29, 2012

Laddie dropped after third series

Tidewater RC Qual, Farmville, VA

On Saturday's land triple, around-the-horn with the long memory bird retired, Laddie had great line mechanics, watched every throw, and nailed every mark.

On the land blind, he needed only one whistle, with a prompt sit and an accurate cast.

On the water blind, he maintained a tight corridor, challenged the line, sat on every whistle, and took high quality casts.

In addition, Laddie did not pop all day.

Based on my admittedly limited experience, I thought we were in a tie for First. Instead, we were not called back to run the final series.

Of course I wondered why, and asked the marshal to check with the judges for me. One of them was kind enough to show me her book for Laddie and explain her reasons.  Though I don't remember her exact wording, I'll try to convey what she said, with my annotations in square brackets:

"It wasn't any one thing. Your dog marked extremely well, one-whistled the land blind, and ran the water blind well. But we just felt you didn't work together as a team. In particular, Laddie visited the gun stations after picking up the two memory marks. He aired on every return [that is, the marking behavior typical of an intact male]. And he was noisy lining up for the land blind [a couple of quiet, excited whines when I said 'dead bird'] and on several of the water casts [his usual mournful vocalizing]. We felt he was doing what he wanted to do, rather than what you were telling him to do."

A one-time National Open judge once told me, "We don't judge the returns." Well, it seems some judges do, since the primary knocks on Laddie's work was about his returns.

Look, I'm not going to say I'm ok. This hurts, make no mistake.  I was rare or unique as owner/trainer/handler of a first field trial dog in the stake, and Laddie -- one of only two Goldens -- was undoubtedly the only positive-trained dog, as he would be in any retriever trial. Yet I feel that Laddie and I put in a good performance against tough competition. I learned from previous mistakes, and Laddie showed off his natural abilities as well as the trained skills he's acquired. Nonetheless, we still have weaknesses, and unfortunately, our weaknesses happened to be the wrong ones for this particular judging team. We're never going to win them all. With other judges, maybe we actually would have been in a tie for First heading into the last series as I thought we were. So maybe this just wasn't our day.

Trial Notes

Series A was the fairly typical Qual combination of a land triple and a land blind by invitation, with call-backs to the next series based on the dog's work in both the triple and the blind. After 26 dogs ran, we had 14 call-backs. Few if any dogs had difficulty with the blind, so I'd say that most if not all of 12 dogs were dropped because of the triple's difficulty, almost half the dogs. The land triple was around-the-horn with the long gun retired and a short flyer as the go-bird. The two memory marks were tight and the flyer gun station was at least 90 degrees to the left, so line mechanics were a significant challenge. Quite a few dogs turned from the first throw to the flyer and never saw the middle throw. Of course, even among those who saw all the throws, some still had long hunts, returned to old falls, switched, or required a handle. Those were the kinds of problems that got dogs dropped.

Since I've seen and had difficulty with that configuration in the past, I knew to run Laddie on the opposite side from the attractive go-bird, even though that meant on the opposite side of the direction of the throw, and I knew to stand near his head as the first two birds were thrown, then step back and turn to let him watch the flyer. He got a great look at all three throws and nailed all the marks, one of the small number of dogs to do so. He then one-whistled the blind, with a prompt sit and accurate cast. He never popped, never dropped a bird on his returns, delivered all the birds to hand, and was in reasonable control while under judgment. I figured we were in a tie for First after the first call-back. I didn't actually see how we couldn't be.

The water blind consisted of 110y land entry whose line passed inches from a tree whose limbs blocked the handler's view of the bird, an angle entry thru reeds into the water, a 130y swim tight to the shoreline with a small point of land at mid point and the shore receding out of sight behind the point, and a 10y climb up the steep embankment of a dam, with the bird planted at the top of the dam (all distances my estimates). Many of the handlers attempted to run their dogs within a couple of yards of the shoreline, and many of them lost the dogs into the reeds that lined the shoreline with that strategy. One pro ran a young dog far wide ("fat") of the shoreline the entire way, and I was sure the dog would be dropped for not challenging the blind, as happened to me once earlier this year when I ran Laddie the same way. It turned out that that dog was not dropped. Laddie and a few others were run fairly clear of the shoreline except at mid-point, when they were intentionally sent to the point and then sent back out wide again, thus demonstrating control and challenging the blind while staying out of trouble most of the way. Laddie never slipped a whistle, never refused a cast -- that is, he always went the direction he was sent -- and never popped. I figured we were still in a tie for first.

However, eight dogs were called back and Laddie was not one of them. I asked the marshal to ask the judges why not (you're not supposed to ask the judges directly), and one of the judges was kind enough to show me her pages on Laddie and explain why he was dropped. I don't have a perfect memory of her wording, but it was something like this: "It wasn't any one thing. We just didn't feel that you worked together as a team. Your dog was doing what he wanted to, rather than what you were telling him to."

Now, you might ask how a dog who watched the dead-bird throws rather than swinging his head to the flyer, and ran two blinds without slipping a whistle or taking a poor cast, could be dropped for "doing what he wanted to." The primary answer is that he "aired" (that is, the typical intact male practice of marking) on many of his returns. Adding to his difficulties with the judges was that he visited the gunners after picking up the birds on the two memory marks. And adding still further was that he was "noisy", meaning that he whined in excitement a little while I lined him up on the land blind, and that he emitted the mournful vocalization he's been giving on water casts since he was quite young.

I don't actually know why Laddie vocalizes on water or when I cue "dead bird". Apparently he has learned at some level that it helps him succeed. However, I'm not going to address vocalizing here. As I understand it, the world of field trainers is divided into two kinds of people: those who have never had a dog that vocalizes and in many cases are sure they know how to fix it, and those who have had a dog who vocalizes, tried everything to fix it, and were never able to.

As for visiting the gunners and peeing during returns, that's our old friend the field recall. Understand, Laddie brought back every bird on the run and with minimal delays. He even brought back the cripple flyer alive, rather than crushing it first to stop it from moving and trying to bite him, as he sometimes does with cripples. But yes, he did detour to show off his bird to the gunners on the two memory marks, and he did stop occasionally to mark the occasional tree or shrub to establish them as "his" territory. If all you cared about was fixing those behaviors using positive methods, I suspect it could be done. However, if you were also trying to train the dog to run field trial marks and blinds, you might find yourself somewhat constrained, since the last thing you want to do is to introduce any conflicts to the dog's otherwise successful natural and trained tendencies.

I'm not going to try to fix the vocalizing again. I've tried before and started getting no-gos, and I'd obviously rather we get dropped by those occasional judges who won't tolerate vocalizing than ruin Laddie entirely.

I guess I'll try working on improving Laddie's returns even more, though he's already come a long way from his dismal returns when he was younger. My initial thought is to call out "No" the moment he detours from a trotting, direct return, put the bird back where it was, walk him to the start line, and have him attempt the entire retrieve again. That might work. Things I can see going wrong: (1) He has no idea why I'm saying "No" so nothing changes except we both get more exercise and I spend more money paying for my assistants for their time (no field trial group will allow us to train with them, so I have to pay HS kids to throw for us). (2) Laddie enjoys the "correction" and the problem gets worse. (3) Laddie decides that his mistake was some behavior I actually want him to continue, such as picking up the bird and bringing it back, and thus a desirable behavior deteriorates. Of course I'll watch carefully and try to make sure none of those bad things happen, though it's never easy to be sure you're correctly correlating the dog's responses to the training methods you're attempting.

This was a psychologically expensive loss, since I felt we were in excellent shape for a placement, possibly even a win, with just one more series to go. At least one of the judges has known me and my training approach since Laddie was a puppy, and I guess she saw what she expected to see, a dog with excellent marking, line mechanics, and handling skills but nonetheless "doing what he wants."

The bottom line is this. The judges in this stake may believe, as virtually all traditional trainers do, that a positive-trained dog can't succeed in field trials, and they made sure of it in this one. 

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